— For three days, they hobnobbed with Republican stars, were pursued by reporters, cast ballots for their party's presidential nominee and generally had a taste of life at the center of the political universe.

Today, Maryland's delegation to the Republican National Convention returns home to a state where Mitt Romney is given little chance of carrying in November and a slate of congressional candidates is being heavily outspent in every district but one.

In other words, state Republicans come back to reality.

But even though deep-blue Maryland is flyover territory for the presidential campaigns — its voters haven't backed a Republican for president in 24 years — members of the state's delegation said they are optimistic they will have an impact, if not a win.

"If we can get higher voter turnout than we do traditionally, it'll help increase our credibility and our visibility, and they'll stop saying Maryland doesn't count," said Audrey Scott, a former chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party and a Romney delegate. "We're trying to make a statement that Maryland is in play."

Even in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a 2-to-1 margin — and President Barack Obama's campaign offices outnumber Romney's by a 5-to-1 margin — the GOP has some moves it can make to influence the election and begin to build a stronger party before the next national convention in 2016.

"Our job," said Romney's Maryland campaign co-chair, Louis Pope, "is to make Maryland relevant."

To do so, party officials and independent observers said, Republicans will have to jump on every opportunity that comes their way.

Tie Democrats down

It has long been the case that Marylanders' fights in presidential years take place in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Both of the state's political parties will bus volunteers into those battlegrounds to connect with and energize voters there. The "ground game" is all about deciding where to put resources — people and money — and that could provide a small opening for the state's beleaguered GOP.

Pope argues that the more aggressively his party can organize in Maryland, the more it forces Democrats to keep resources within the state to play defense, depriving Virginia and Pennsylvania of the added manpower that could make a difference in a close race.

"Our job is to tie the Democrats down to Maryland," said Pope, whose organizational prowess helped the Romney campaign win a clean sweep of delegates in the state's April primary. "Our job is forcing the Democrats to push for a full ground game so that they're not sending people out of state."

The sheer number of volunteers Democrats have at their disposal gives them a big advantage in that effort. But Pope argues that the GOP doesn't have to match the Obama campaign one-for-one to make a difference.

State Republicans take credit for forcing Al Gore to campaign in Maryland in the fall of 2000, for instance, even though the state was not in play that year.

And any time Gore spent in Maryland, Pope pointed out, was time he didn't spend in Florida, where he ultimately lost the race to George W. Bush.

Close the gap

Barring a drastic change of course in the race, Romney won't win Maryland — but he could lose by less. And that might have an impact on how candidates look at the state in 2016 and 2020.

Obama carried Maryland with 62 percent of the vote in 2008, but that unusually large percentage reflected the widespread dissatisfaction voters felt with Bush and the excitement they had for Obama. In 1996, Bill Clinton won Maryland with 54 percent. Four years before that, he took 50 percent.